Estádio José Alvalade, Lisboa, 23.06.2004
Czech Republic

1-2 (1-1)
Ballack 21. / Heinz 30., Baroš 77.

Having taken two points from their first two matches against the Netherlands and Latvia, Germany would face the Czech Republic in their final group game knowing that only a win would make a place in the quarter-finals a certainty. As had been the case four years earlier they would have to take on a side that had already booked its place in the last eight, but unlike in 2000 the Mannschaft’s fate would be entirely in their hands. They could have afforded a draw if Latvia were able to hold the Dutch in the group’s other match, but knew that a win would see them through irrespective of what happened elsewhere.

Despite having to win the game coach Rudi Völler would revert back to a more defensive-looking 1-2-3-3-1 lineup, with the fit-again Jens Nowotny returning to the side in a sweeper role and nineteen year-old Bastian Schweinsteiger earning a place in a three-man attacking midfield unit which sat in front of a three-man defensive midfield with Kevin Kurányi the sole target man up front.

As had been the case with Portugal four years earlier in Rotterdam, the Czechs would decide to rest a number of key players – making no fewer than nine changes to the side that had started in their previous match against the Dutch where they had recovered from a two-goal deficit to win 3-2. With the Czechs playing what was essentially a second eleven, the winless yet unbeaten Germans must have fancied their chances of claiming all three points and pipping the Dutch for the second available spot in the last eight.

Following their two draws in their first two matches Germany had now gone five games without a win in European Championship finals, with their last victory coming in the final in 1996 – against the Czech Republic. It would be the Mannschaft’s fifth meeting with the Czechs in European Championship finals – the most popular fixture in the tournament’s history. Of these five meetings, the Germans had won three (1980 and twice in 1996) and the Czechs once (1976).

Norwegian Terje Hauge would take charge of the game, and led the sides out on what was yet another fine Portuguese evening. In front of a crowd of just under forty-seven thousand in Lisbon’s Estádio José Alvalade, both sides were in their traditional colours: Germany in white shirts, black shorts and white socks, and the Czechs in their equally famous combination of red, white and blue.

The Nationalmannschaft would get the match underway, but it would be the Czechs that would make the more threatening start as a Marek Heinz free-kick would narrowly evade striker Martin Jiránek with German ‘keeper Oliver Kahn under pressure. However after this fast start things would start to settle down, and not much else would happen in what would be an uneventful opening quarter of an hour.

The twentieth minute would see a Michael Ballack shot deflected over for a corner, but just a minute later would come that moment that would give hope to every watching German supporter. After Bernd Schneider dispossessed a lazy Jaroslav Plašil out on the left to slide a low ball into the Czech penalty area, Bastian Schweinsteiger teed it up nicely for Ballack to lash in a left-footed thunderbolt on the half-volley. Keeper Jaromír Blažek could do nothing as the ball flew past him and crashed into the top left-hand corner of the net: Germany were in front.

At this stage, the Czechs would be leading the group table with six points followed by Germany on five, with both the Netherlands and Latvia on two points. Things were back on track, and the German fans were again in full voice.

Michael Ballack scores a breathtaking goal to put Rudi Völler’s men in front, and there is hope

The Mannschaft would not be prepared to sit on their lead, and maintained the tempo. Kevin Kurányi would win the ball and set up Schneider who warmed Blažek’s gloves, and the VfB Stuttgart striker would provide far more energy than he had done in the previous match against Latvia. With the Czechs not looking remotely threatening, one could say that things were at last starting to look comfortable for Völler’s side.

However just as the situation appeared to have settled down it would quickly turn around again. First news had started to come through from Braga that the Dutch had taken the lead against Latvia. Then, with just under thirty minutes gone, Philipp Lahm would clip Heinz just outside the box. The Baník Ostrava striker would dust himself himself down and line up the free-kick, which he sent up and over the wall and past the diving Olli Kahn to bring things level.

With Kahn having to pluck the ball from the back of his net, the Germans would find themselves back down in third place in the group. With Latvia highly unlikely to turn things around against a Dutch side that had by now doubled their lead, the Mannschaft would now be up against it. The equation was clear: only a win would see them through.

With Germany having to chase the game an out of position Jens Nowotny would be booked for a cynical challenge on Heinz, but there would be little else to inspire their supporters in the 46,849-strong crowd. Christian Wörns and Arne Friedrich would have half-chances that were blocked and Schneider was unable to capitalise on a defensive error by Czech defender David Rozehnal, and just moments before the half-time whistle German nerves would be jangling when a Vratislav Lokvenc snapshot called Kahn into action.

Half-time came with the Germans teetering on the brink, and coach Völler would respond positively by sending on 1. FC Köln teenager Lukas Podolski for Torsten Frings. It would be Czech substitute Tomáš Hübschman who would almost have an immediate effect however, pouncing on a lazy ball from Nowotny before sending in a cross to Lokvenc whose shot was brilliantly parried by Kahn.

Having recovered from the shock of almost falling behind the Mannschaft would once more attempt to get their game moving. Schneider tested Blažek with a shot that the Czech ‘keeper tipped over the bar, while both Lahm and Schweinsteiger started to show a lot more invention down the left flank. The tireless Ballack was making his presence felt all over the pitch, and would head the ball straight into the arms of a grateful Blažek before sending a skidding shot narrowly wide just minutes later.

There was more intent and invention from the Germans now: a delicious right-wing cross from Schweinsteiger was just too far ahead of a diving Kurányi, and Lahm worked brilliantly down the left to set up Ballack whose shot crashed against the bottom of the post before Schneider’s shot from the rebound was parried by Blažek. Minutes later Kurányi would also have a shot blocked as the Czechs for the first time looked rattled at the back.

On seventy minutes the Mannschaft should have taken the lead, as the confident Lahm once again skinned his marker down the left to send in a cross with Schneider in space. With the goal at his mercy, the Bayer Leverkusen man could only send his header over the bar. Just minutes later Wörns would have a shot cleared off the line by Hübschman before a Podolski effort was bravely blocked by Blažek.

Völler’s side should really have been in front by now, and one felt that this was quickly turning into one of those evenings. As if just to compound the frustration felt by the Nationaltrainer, the excellent Philipp Lahm would be booked for pulling back Czech substitute Karel Poborský and the referee would wave play on after the ball had appeared to strike Rozehnal’s arm. The Czechs were now being mercilessly pinned inside their own half, and Kurányi would head the ball narrowly wide from a marginally offside position.

With all of the German pressure, there was a sense of inevitability about what would follow. Picking the ball up just outside the German box, substitute Milan Baroš would beat Nowotny’s nonexistent offside trap and hold off Wörns before forcing a fine save from Kahn. On any other night the ball might have rolled away and been hacked to safety, but instead it came back off the inside of the ‘keeper’s left leg back to Baroš, who slotted it into the gaping net. It was like a stab in the heart.

Völler would throw on Miroslav Klose for Hamann, but by this stage he would have been hoping for a miracle. Wörns became the third German player to be booked for a foul on Baroš, and as if to rub salt in the wound news would filter through that the Dutch had scored a third. Schweinsteiger would be replaced by FC Bayern team mate Jens Jeremies, but with the wind completely sucked out of them the Mannschaft would be unable to lift their game again.

As had been the case four years earlier in Rotterdam, Germany had come unstuck in their final group match against a reserve team. In 2000 it had been Portugal, here in 2004 it would be the Czech Republic. The performances would be completely different and there would be no shame in this defeat as there had been in 2000, but the end result would be same. The Czechs and the Netherlands would progress to the last eight, and the Germans would once more be heading home early.

What else can I do? At the end, there would be only be a sense of helplessness

Just a day after the defeat, coach Rudi Völler would hand in his resignation. The tournament itself would be won by outsiders Greece, coached by a man who had given Völler his first real opportunity as a young player at Werder Bremen: Otto Rehhagel.

Germany: Kahn (c) – Nowotny – Friedrich, Wörns – Frings (46. Podolski), D. Hamann (79. Klose), Lahm – Schneider, Ballack, Schweinsteiger (86. Jeremies) – Kurányi

Czech Republic: Blažek – Jiránek, Bolf, Rozehnal, Mareš – Galásek (46. Hübschman) – Plašil (70. Poborský), Týce, Vachoušek – Heinz, Lokvenc (59. Baroš)

Referee: Terje Hauge (Norway)
Assistants: Steinar Holvik (Norway), Ole Hermann Borgan (Norway)
Fourth Official: Stuart Dougal (Scotland)

Yellow Cards: Nowotny, Lahm, Wörns / Týce
Red Cards: – / –

Attendance: 46,849

First Phase Group D Table

Czech RepublicCzech Republic (Q)330074+39
NetherlandsNetherlands (Q)311164+24

Other results: Czech Republic 2-1 Latvia; Netherlands 2-3 Czech Republic; Netherlands 3-0 Latvia.

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